Off Stage

A lonely journey in dance

Raka Maitra dances every day for at least four hours.
Raka Maitra dances every day for at least four hours.PHOTO: COURTESY OF RAKA MAITRA

Dancer and choreographer Raka Maitra was born and raised in India, where her grandfather Samar Chatterjee founded Children's Little Theatre, a performing arts centre that holds dance, theatre, puppetry and music classes.

"I grew up surrounded by artists, and dance and music was just a part of normal routine," she recalls.

Maitra, who moved to Singapore in 2005 and is married with two sons, started dancing at the age of five.

Now 45, she is the artistic director of dance company Chowk Productions, which is known for its contemporary works grounded in Odissi training, an ancient form of Indian dance from Orissa, India.

  • BOOK IT/THE SECOND SUNRISE BY CHOWK PRODUCTIONS

  • WHERE: Esplanade Theatre Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Oct 14 and 15, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $30 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

Her upcoming show, The Second Sunrise, will be staged on Oct 14 and 15 as part of the Esplanade's da:ns festival. The one-hour work also involves Singapore artists Zai Kuning and Bani Haykal, who will perform the music live.

You're both a dancer and a choreographer. What are some important things for you and what are the challenges you've faced?

As a dancer, dancing solo was never easy. It was a lonely journey where I had to practise alone, choreograph alone and keep to a strict routine.

I had to force myself to dance every day for at least four hours for just maybe five performances a year. Sometimes, it was hard to find time to practise in the midst of everything else, such as classes, but this time was the most important and the most energising part of my day.

As the artistic director of Chowk, I've kept to the same routine and I'm trying to instil the discipline of training even before we start our rehearsals. The training is sometimes longer than the rehearsals.

I find it hard to convince the dancers that the training is as important as running the piece over and over again, but I'm hoping they will understand some day.

I'm a slow choreographer. I take hours or even days to do a five-minute choreography, so I think it must be very hard for the dancers. They just have to be patient and trust me.

In Singapore, one of the challenges I face is that there are not enough full-time Indian dancers. My contemporary work needs dancers trained in Indian forms, but the number of dancers who want to take it up as a profession is very limited. I hope the interest will grow as the opportunity widens.

What are your pre-show rituals?

I have many rituals before a show, but there are three which I never miss.

I have to do my Odissi steps as a warm-up, eat a banana for energy - and I hate bananas - and speak to my sister. She has to wish me luck.

Do you have on-stage jitters?

I've never had them - maybe because I've performed from a very young age and I feel very comfortable on stage. A month before the show, I'm anxious, but it dies down as the show gets closer.

What is the harshest criticism you have received and how did you deal with it?

I trained in India, where you hear only criticism. You are always told what needs to improve, so I'm used to criticism and not very used to being praised.

I think that was the most important lesson - to be able to take criticism and not let it affect you adversely. Even today, when I'm working with people who are very objective, I'm not looking for praise. I just want to push myself and my work just needs to get better.

What's your advice to aspiring dancers and choreographers?

I don't know whether I'm in the position to give advice. I think I can just tell them what I believe in and what I was taught by my teacher Madhavi Mudgal, one of the leading Odissi exponents in the world now.

She told me that if you want to dance, you can't give your body a break. You need to dance every day for a few hours.

It is when I dance and do the same routine every day that I can imagine and think of movements and choreography. Nothing comes when I sit and think.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2016, with the headline 'A lonely journey in dance'. Print Edition | Subscribe